By CAROLYN SZCZEPANSKI
There's a new energy fight heating up in Missouri and it has nothing to do with coal.
This year, Kansas became a bell-weather state for the rising opposition to coal-fired power plants, as the battle over a controversial new project in Holcomb paralyzed progress on virtually all fronts during the 2008 legislative session. Now that dirty coal is becoming a risky bet for utilities, Missouri may be the indicator of where that debate about energy policy is headed.
Tonight, the Show-Me State gets its first glimpse of what could be an atomic future.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will hold a public meeting in Fulton — 150 miles east of Kansas City — to explain the review process for a possible new nuclear power facility. AmerenUE, Missouri's largest utility, which serves 1.2 million residents, intends to file an application with the agency later this year to build a new reactor on its current nuclear power site in Callaway County.
It's early in the process, but activists from Kansas City, Columbia and St. Louis already are gearing up their opposition because they say this project could be the start of a dangerous trend that could cripple renewable energy efforts.
The trouble with nuclear power is that utilities are trying to paint it green. The main argument against coal-fired energy facilities is that they produce carbon dioxide, which leads to global warming. But the white stuff streaming out of the cooling towers at a nuclear power plant isn't CO2. It's H2O. A little water vapor never hurt anyone and there won't be a federal tax on it anytime soon, says Ameren spokesman Mike Cleary, so utilities are seriously considering the nuclear option to keep up with energy demand and hold down rates for their customers.
Clean energy advocates like Melissa Hope, a local activist with the Missouri Sierra Club, take issue with that green talk. According to a recent article by Kristin Shrader-Frechette, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Notre Dame, data doesn't back up the hype that nuclear power is clean, cheap or safe. Mining and transporting uranium produces plenty of carbon dioxide. And then there's the problem of dealing with nuclear waste.
All the safety and regulatory hurdles make it far more complicated and time-consuming to get a nuclear reactor online than to put up a wind farm. Plus, nuclear power is only cheap if you forget the fact that the atomic industry has banked more than $20 billion in federal subsidies — in just the past two years.
That's the message activists like Hope are taking to the meeting in Fulton tonight. "If we invest in a nuclear power plant we're foregoing all the clean energy needs in this state," she says. "We only need so much capacity and if we build it all as nuclear, there's no need to reduce consumption through efficiency and renewable energy sources. Renewable [energy] and [energy] efficiency are a heck of a lot cheaper, but Ameren is hoping to spring on ratepayers the highest-cost energy option they could choose."
Cleary says the new nuclear plant would cost at least $6 billion. But, he adds, Ameren hopes to save some cash on the capital investment by filing its license application with the feds this year. Thanks to the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the company could get a hefty chunk of taxpayers' money if its application is near the front of the line.
And other utilities will likely follow suit, Cleary adds. If the comments of Kansas City Power and Light CEO Michael Chesser are any indication, our local power company certainly isn't ruling it out. Chesser dropped the n-bomb at a Midwest Energy Policy Forum last month.